“But…how will I know when I’m BETTER??!?!”
This is a question I was asked a few months ago by a friend who was recently diagnosed with that tricky beast known as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and was going through various treatments with widely varying levels of success. While my initial reaction to the question was to shrug and reply “When you feel normal again?” I’ve actually been thinking about the question a lot. What does “better” or “normal” actually mean in terms of each individual’s personal perception of health? Is “normal” for each individual even a static state of being or is it a fluid state flux?
Perhaps I should back up a bit to put into context why my friend was even asking me the question. All of my life I have dealt with what has since (and only very recently) been diagnosed as IBS. What does that mean? Well quite simply for me, all growing up, “normal” was always feeling a bit crampy and wiggly in the stomach; especially after eating. It seemed no matter what I ate or didn’t there was always a constant pressure building in my digestive tract which warned me that staying more that a brief sprint from the nearest bathroom could prove… undesirable.
Anytime I ate I KNEW that within 20 minutes the stronger digestive gurgling would begin and the next few hours would be a touch-and-go game of bathroom tag. This was life. Riding on long trips became a matter of mind-over-matter as I tried to CONVINCE myself that I wasn’t in intestinal pain and didn’t REALLY have to use that next rest stop that was fast approaching. I learned to function this way. I knew no other way to live. 8-12 times a day my digestion would win over and send me running to the bathroom to play the doubled-over-in-pain game of …we’ll just say “ick”. I coped and figured that was just how everyone else must do it too. My parents thought I was obsessed with seeing the inside of any and every bathroom in the world but I just figured they must be teasing me about something everyone else had to deal with too.
If I was going to be on a long trip I learned to just not eat anything beforehand. If I didn’t know when I’d be near a bathroom again I would just avoid eating and deal with the low-grade constant pain I’d grown accustomed to instead of having to deal with those tougher bouts of sharp pain and urgent urges. Once I learned to drive I took a roll of toilet paper as a just in case. I learned to ease my stomach’s cramps with mental relaxation techniques to get through long journeys if I had to eat at some point (6-7 hour trips to college for example) and always chanted to myself as a calming reminder that if I HAD to I was always allowed to pull over to the side of the road as a last resort. Any hour WITHOUT that constant feeling of “blah” was enjoyed with the trepidation that comes from knowing it would not last. Menstrual cramps added to it made for 3 days of torture every month.
But, that was life. That WAS “normal” to me. It was only about a year ago, when things started to get even a bit worse, that I finally said “No. Enough! This is no longer how I want “normal” to feel. There has to be a better way.” I met and spoke with my amazing gastro-enterologist. Had some testing. And got what I call my little life-giving pills.
Once a day I take a pill that has stopped my stomach from doing its normal little cramp-dance-flip-flops of doom. No longer does every day pass in a low-thrum of intestinal pain accentuated by post-eating dire straights. The first week that I felt this freedom from pain and a drastic drop in such urgent runs to the bathroom it was like a whole new world opened up to me. As wonderful as putting on my first pair of glasses and SEEING those little spring twigs on the trees; I felt ALIVE! I wasn’t tied to a need for the bathroom for the first time. EVER.
I didn’t eyeball meals with a look ahead to whether I’d be within walking distance of a bathroom in the next 20 minutes. I could eat and then go shopping or take a hike in the woods or ANYTHING! Driving was not always a matter of mapping the route with the most bathrooms. And this wonderful feeling continues still today. I may have to take a pill each day to ensure it does but now that low-grade pain is NOT the norm for me. My definition of “normal”; my view of “better” is changed.
It is not always perfect, this new version of “normal”. Indeed there has been a long and continuous process of learning; a curve that will likely go on for quite some time; where I’m discovering foods to avoid that trigger those acute episodes reminiscent of my youth. I’m adding fiber pills to supplement my already pretty leafy meals and have had to stop chewing sugar-free gum (which, for someone with a chewing obsession has proved to be very difficult). Yet after praying at one point that there was SOMETHING to diagnose as “wrong” with me so that there was something tangible to FIX; these small actions are a drop in the bucket and well worth it to me.
So, at the end of all this I have to say that now I get through the rougher parts of my menstrual cycle (which are still shaky and “wiggly” for my digestion) and look forward with relief to feeling “normal” again; to feeling “better” once more. I’ve learned that feeling “better” is different to me now than it was before. Yet both versions of the feeling were/are what I, at the time, decided was “bearable”; “livable”.
So when my friend asked how she could know she was finally feeling “Better” (Is it when you get to a certain number of bathroom runs per day? Is it when you can eat certain food without getting those urgent cramps? How do you KNOW?!??!) I answered, “When you feel normal again?” And you know what? After all this rambling reflection I have to say that I’d stick with my answer. Feeling better isn’t measurable by the same metrics for each person. This is where we get into trouble in trying to define “healthy” or “normal” across entire populations. There IS no one single defining feeling of “normal” to experience.
Each and everyone of us will experience “normal” as our own personal definitions of the word. I truly believe that there IS no universal constant for “normal”. You can try to set up measurements of size or shape or the number of pills taken or how many weights you can lift in order to decide if someone is indeed “healthy” or “normal” or “better”. But at the end of the day, all that matters is that YOU are able to reflect upon how you feel and say “Yeah, I feel pretty much normal”. How that actually feels to you may not match how it feels for anyone else in the world and will likely be ever-changing as you age and move through life’s experiences.
No matter how you personally define it; I find that “normal” is an individual reality that reflects the bare minimum level of health (mental, physical, emotional) that you will put up with. And no ONE version of it is better than the other. So, how DO you know when you’re better?? It’s when you feel like YOU again.